A few days ago, Rod Adams left an interesting comment on my discussion of the history of nuclear safety. Rod raised some issues that were both interesting and complex. I disagreed with one of Rod's arguments, that is that Nader's opposition to nuclear power power was somehow tied to the Texas oil industry.
Rod Adams asked me:
As an Historian of Ideas, did you do much work on the interplay of economics with technological development?
Answer: I have looked at the interplay of economics and technology more from a purely historic perspective. I did some study on how the development of a technology driven transportation systems in the 19th century United States was related to its economic and social developments. I have little doubt that economic demands lead to the 19th century development of steam powered technology. It retrospective we see that steam technology – rail roads and steam ships - emerging rapidly in response to economic demands, and that both economies and society were profoundly effected by that development. For example, the building of railroads on the Great Plains of the United States opened them to commercial farming, which in turn brought hundreds of thousands of European immigrants to the United States. Thus it could be argued that the 19th century development of steam technology was indirectly responsible for half of the population of Norway leaving that country and settling in the United States. From the viewpoint of the history of ideas you could trace the beginning of this immigration process back to 18th century in Glasglow, when a mechanic, James Watts applied physics to improving the efficiency of the steam engine, thus revolutionizing steam technology.
RA: Like you, I like to look at technological developments through a lens that is different from that provided by the conventional wisdom. I have always been intrigued by the strength of the movement against nuclear power led by people like Nader when there were so many obvious hazards imposed by all other energy sources.
Answer: The anti-nuclear movement had several sources. First was the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1950s and 60s. A second source was opposition to placing power reactors in environmentally sensitive locations. A third source was the concern of nuclear safety researchers about reactor safety, and the belief that the AEC had prematurely shutdown nuclear safety research. I have pointed in Nuclear Green to the conflict over reactor safety between the AEC and the leadership and staff of several national laboratories in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. The scientist who were concerned about reactor safety were not opposed to nuclear power, and in fact had already done much to make reactors safer. It is clear from Three Mile Island that reactors were far less dangerous to the public than coal fired power plants. The issue for the scientists was whether reactors could and should be made safer. In fact the history of nuclear safety makes clear that the scientist won their case, and that new reactor designs have become progressively safer. There is a cost for making LWRs safer. Building safety into complex reactors whose fundamental design is not inherently safe is expensive. And we both know reactors can be both simpler and safer, if you take water out of the reactor. Thus both the Pebble Bed Reactor and the LFTR are safer than the LWR and their safety does not increase reactor price.
The “Ban the Bomb” movement was a source of both people and ideas for the anti-reactor crowd. My suspicion is that young Ralph Nader may not have been involved in the “Ban the Bomb” campaign but he was sympathetic to it. He still supports nuclear disarmament. The contribution that the “Ban the Bomb” people made to the anti-Nuclear movement was to spread confusion between reactors and atomic bombs. Helen Caldicott is a major example of that sin. The “Ban the Bomb” crowd have also spread considerable confusion about reactors as nuclear proliferation tools.
No doubt the South Africans looked at using reactor grade plutonium from the Koeberg nuclear power plant as bomb making material, the Helen Suzman Foundation reports
“The connection between nuclear weapons and nuclear power stations is slight, almost as slight as the connection between the lead in batteries and bullets. An atomic bomb requires either 90 per cent Uranium-235 or Plutonium-239. Since natural uranium contains only 0,7 per cent U-235, you have to enrich it, which is difficult, expensive and conspicuous. Koeberg only has enrichment to 3,5 per cent, which is why it is impossible for it to explode like a bomb. The apartheid government enriched uranium to over 90 per cent and made several atomic bombs at Valindaba near Pretoria. To say that Koeberg was a front for the bomb programme is rather like saying a nunnery is a front for a brothel: the two activities are so different it would have fooled no one.”
“The plutonium in Koeberg’s waste is next to useless for weapons, and none have ever been made from such reactors. Now that apartheid has gone and we have joined the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, nuclear power without nuclear weapons fits in perfectly with our new democracy, as it does in Sweden, Finland and Japan.”
Finally, the anti-nuclear wing of the environmentalist movement has an agenda, that positively ignores the public interest. Nader appears to have made common cause with the anti-consumer David Brower, Amory Lovins crowd. Thus far from bring consumers low cost electrical energy the Nader-Lovins crowd have brought California consumers in the name of anti-nuclear energy efficiency the most expensive electrical power in the country.
Rod Adams: I have pretty much convinced myself that the nuclear industry came under attack BECAUSE it was technically so much better than the competition that the people selling fossil fuels could not allow any kind of fair competition. Now, some would tell me that I am crazy to try to link Nader to the fossil fuel establishment, but here are some items for thought.
Answer: I have little doubt that Nader could, if he wished to, take a large amount of money from coal and oil interest. Nader has kept the financial operations of his non-profit “public interest” agencies secret. Thus Nader could receive large amounts of money from Coal interest and no one would know. Also Nader could be paid off through speaker fees. Recall that Nader admitted being worth nearly $4 million in 2000, despite earning only $15,000 a year during most of his career. Where did the money come from? Probably speaking fees and book sales. The $4 million is quite possibly only a small part of Nader’s wealth. I suspect that he has millions more tied up in retirement plans with Nader non-profit fronts. Saint Ralph will be well taken care of in his old age.
There would be a motivation on the side of the coal interest to “help” Ralph Nader. During most of his career Nader judged the coal producers with a very different set of standards than he judged the nuclear industry. Nader was a Johnny-come-lately to the anthropogenic global warming issue, and he has largely ignored the health and environmental issues implicit in burning coal in order to generate electricity. This is an amazing lapse for one who claimed to have the public interest at heart. Although Nader has made issues of mine safety, and tax avoidance by mine owners, he never consistently applied the criteria which he applied to the nuclear industry to the coal industry. Thus Nader was guilty of holding double standards in judging energy sources.
Rod Adams: 1. Nader grew up in an Arab-American household that owned a restaurant and served a largely Arab-American community. He has mentioned in several biographies the importance of many conversations in the restaurant to his career as a political activist.
Answer: The Nader’s were Maronite Christians. At one point Maronites were in a majority in Lebanon, but during the 19th and 20th centuries most emigrated from Lebanon. Nearly half ended up in all places, Brazil, but a quarter came to the United States. The Maronite were a minority who were repeatedly assailed and who repeatedly assailed other religious groups in Lebanese society. There were several civil wars in Lebonan during the 19th and 20th centuries. During the Civil War of 1976 to 1991 it is said that “By the end of the war, nearly every party had allied with and subsequently betrayed every other party at least once.” Thus Maronites come from a world of conflict, treachery and mistrust.
One of the most important things about Lebanese society is the extent to which mistrust hobbles the development of what we would call civil society. There is no public interest in Lebanon. For at least the last few hundred years, the Lebanese have repeatedly fallen into Civil Wars. The acquisition of power within Lebanese society is seen as a danger to everyone, because it might lead one group to dominance over other groups. Thus a standard strategy is to mistrust and create mistrust for the powerful. Mistrust of the powerful is a recurrent theme in Nader's thinking. Human power is created by centralization of control, in Nader’s world view, and he believes that the function of the states is to check the dangerous organization of centralized power that is not in “public hands.” For Nader there is a fundamental conflict between “the public interest,” and the concentration of power in business hands.
Who is dangerous in Nader’s views? It the people who small business owners fear, larger competators, businesses and industries. In addition Nader fears the power of scientist, whose language he does not understand.
Nader’s central strategy is to spread the mistrust he feels for businesses and industries, and to organize efforts to control the misconduct he suspects them of. This tracks nicely with Lovin’s desire to decentralize the production of electrical energy, by in effect making everyone his or her own power company. This is impossible with nuclear generated electricity, hence Lovins opposes the nuclear option. Curiously Loving believes that highly centralized wind farms, and solar generating facilities are examples of decentralized distributive generation. It would, of course, be a mistake to expect sanity from Lovins. Nader like Lovins ignores the big business aspects of renewable power generation, and ignore the cost to the public of renewable energy. Lovins like Nader is a small business owner. Both have built their businesses by selling bad ideas. Both have convinced the ideological Left that they are champions of human freedom. In fact neither is. Both are champions of highly subsidized business, whose operations end up costing the public lots of money in terms of their electrical expenses.
Nader, in his own life story is the little guy who takes on the powerful. His weapons are stories of the powerful’s misconduct and his plan to reign them in, plans which involves government regulation.
RA: 2. One of his earliest campaigns was against the first popular small car built by an American manufacturer.
Nader has hardly been a genius in his perception of the global warming issue. Nader totally ignored the case for fuel efficiency and CO2 control in his attack on energy efficient cars. In addition to the economical and sporty Corvair, Nader launched an attack on a paragon of fuel economy the VW bug. Even Nader’s staff protested that the VW was not really unsafe, but Nader stuck to his guns. Truth did not matter to Nader, neither did global warming, what mattered was that the power of auto manufacturers be diminished and that Nader appear to be the Hero of the drama he had created for the media. Attacking the big guys was always a means of getting Nader’s name in the paper or on television.
Rod Adams: 3. He began his anti nuclear activities in 1970 at a time when oil cost about $3 per barrel. He was working for the University of Texas Law Review. According to "Ralph Nader: A Biography" by Patricia Cronin Marcello, "We thought the mere investment in energy efficiency would replace far more than the megawatts that could be supplied by risky nuclear power."
Answer: I am not sure what you mean by the statement, “he was working for the University of Texas Law Review.” My step-daughter studied law at the University of Texas Law School. I believe that the Texas Law Review is a student publication that is staffed by University of Texas Law School students. Nader, as far as I can tell did not publish any articles in the Texas Law Review, although several book reviews related to Nader did appear in the TLR in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. I have been able to find a reference to anything that Nader wrote for the University of Texas Law Review. University of Texas Law students and their professors are quite a liberal group collectively. The TLR is not a front for the Texas Oil Industry and would not serve as a conduit for Texas oil money.
Rod Adams: In Texas, in 1970, there was a pretty deep recession assisted by low oil and gas prices partly as a result of a growing interest in building new nuclear power plants.
Answer: There was some Texas interest in nuclear power, but coal was regarded as cheaper, and there is a lot of coal in Texas. Texas electrical producers ended up building a lot of expensive coal fired electrical generating plants, with increasingly expensive Natural Gas backups.
4. His first Critical Mass conference which turned anti-nuclear questions into a focused campaign with coordinated efforts in protests and legislative action took place in 1974, right during the height of interest in oil prices caused by the Arab Oil Embargo. When nuclear fission should have been seen as at least one of many available answers, he was hard at work to take it off of the table.
Answer: The use of oil in electrical generation was not a big deal to the oil industry. Not all that much oil was used in electrical generation to begin with, and coal was the big beneficiary of the attack on nuclear power.
5. Nader played king maker in 1976 when he threw his considerable political support - far more then than now - behind Jimmy Carter in exchange for an agreement to discourage nuclear energy, especially the breeder reactor and recycling programs.
Nader's power came from some well connected friends who kept him in the limelight and kept him funded to conduct his high visibility campaigns. I think that part of the support came because they liked his anti-nuclear stance. Perhaps, it was the other way around and his anti-nuclear stance came because it met the interests of his supporters.
Answer: I would not disagree with that statement, except to say we need to test it. From the viewpoint of constructing history, it has to be supported by facts that demonstrate the opposite is untrue. That is that demonstrate that Nader was not befriended by interest groups, whose interests he directly or indirectly served. Let me give an example of the sort of evidence we need. Daily Kos blogger A. Siegel identified that the Chicago based Joyce Foundation was serving as a conduit for money for pro-coal propaganda activities. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/11/29/185847/96
Grants were given to a number of organizations with environmentalist and anti-nuclear credentials, including:
Great Plains Institute for Sustainable Development Inc. Minneapolis, Amount: $99,400.00
To brief Midwest lawmakers and regulators about how advanced coal technologies are currently deployed in Europe and encourage their support for similar adoption here.
Clean Air Task Force Inc. Boston, MA, Amount: $55,000.00
To support a delegation of Midwest policy makers, industry representatives, and environmental groups to visit European coal gasification projects and meet with European counterparts.
Clean Air Task Force Inc. Boston, MA, Amount: $60,000.00
To retain local counsel and technical experts to appear in the licensing hearings for a proposed IGCC project.
Izaak Walton League of America Inc., St. Paul, MN, Amount: $350,000.00,
To continue to encourage the deployment of advanced coal generation in Minnesota and to promote policies that enable and encourage carbon capture and storage.
Great Plains Institute for Sustainable Development Inc. Minneapolis, Amount: $99,400.00
Union of Concerned Scientists Inc., Cambridge, MA, Amount: $75,000.00
To support its efforts to study and highlight the financial risks of future carbon dioxide emission limits.
CUB Consumer Education and Research Fund, Chicago, IL, Amount: $75,000.00
Length: 1 year
To promote new policies supporting coal gasification and carbon sequestration for new electric generation in Illinois.
Clean Air Task Force Inc. Boston, MA Amount: $787,500.00 Length: 21 mos.
To promote Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle for the next generation of coal plants in the upper Midwest.
Clean Wisconsin Inc. Madison, WI Amount: $500,000.00 Length: 1 year
To oppose conventional coal plants proposed in Wisconsin and promoting coal gasification with sequestration as an alternative. The Wisconsin Citizens Utility Board would be a partner in the intervention and campaign.
Great Plains Institute for Sustainable Development
Minneapolis, MN Amount: $437,500.00 Length: 21 mos.
To support the efforts of its Coal Gasification Working Group.
National Wildlife Federation, Reston, VA Amount: $122,700.00 Length: 21 mos.
To build support in Indiana and Michigan for coal gasification as an alternative to conventional coal-burning power plants.
Indiana Wildlife Federation and Michigan United Conservation Clubs would be partners in this effort. National Resources Defense Council;
For its efforts to oppose the construction of new conventional coal plants and promote alternative plants using coal gasification with carbon sequestration.
Ohio Environmental Council, Columbus, OH, Amount: $113,750.00
Length: 21 mos.
URL: www.theoec.org To support its ongoing efforts to promote Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle in Ohio and to oppose the permitting of a conventional coal plant proposed by AMP-Ohio, a municipal utility consortium.
Resources for the Future Inc. Washington, DC, Amount: $75,000.00
To conduct a quantitative assessment of the risks to shareholders and electric utility ratepayers of investing in various coal combustion technologies.
Rockefeller Family Fund New York, NY Amount: $50,000.00
To support ongoing coal advocacy activities of the Renewable Energy Alignment Mapping Project.
University of Wisconsin-Madison Center on Wisconsin Strategy Madison, WI, Amount: $175,000.00
To build support among labor leaders in Wisconsin and other Midwest states for coal gasification as an alternative to conventional coal power plants.
Establishing a coal or oil connection to the anti-nuclear movement would require a great deal more such evidence. It is more likely that anti-nuclear activist have a prior animosity toward nuclear power that is fundamentally irrational. For a generation they failed to weigh the cost of using coal by the same standards they used to judge nuclear energy. Thus we find Alvin Weinberg writing in the 1970’s about the long term consequences of using coal. Thus in 1977 Weinberg wrote:
“The concentration of C02 in the atmosphere is more strongly tied to the utilization of coal than to that of oil and natural gas simply because the coal resource is so much larger than the oil and gas resource. . . . Thus even if all the oil and gas were burned, the C02 concentration would be increased only by 30 percent; whereas if coal
equivalent to the reserve base is burned, the C02 concentration would increase by 80 percent.”
"If we look at the matter in broadest terms, we find ourselves beset with a profound dilemma. The difficulties and risks of the nuclear path have been delineated often and in detail. . . . The major risk in the coal path is the possible CO catastrophic. In a way this is the coal
analogue of nuclear proliferation: it is global, uncertain, possibly catastrophic. Thus we see the dimensions of the dilemma: the two energy systems upon which we are expecting to depend, at least over the medium term, are flawed to a degree that is at present essentially impossible to fully estimate, and that indeed may never be fully possible to estimate. To those who embrace coal as a fission-free bridge to a solar future, the CO question should inject a note of prudent concern: we can turn the phrase around and ask whether fission based on reactors of current design perhaps will have to serve as a coal-free bridge to a fusion, breeder, or solar future.”
We ought to consider this. Alvin Weinberg saw something in 1977, that Ralph Nader and Amory Lovins didn’t, that a benign neglect of the problems of a coal based energy future could lead to catastrophic climate change. Nader had access to Weinberg’s thinking about the energy future, and thus has no excuse for not being aware about the threat that CO2 generated by fossil fuel use posed for global climate. Lovins was also aware of Weinberg's thinking. Weinberg was clearly trying to take into account the arguments about the energy future posed by Nader and Lovins, and if anything, Weinberg was overly concerned by the dangers of nuclear proliferation.
It goes without saying that neither Nader or Lovins were overly conserned about climate change caused by burning fossil fuels.
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